I laughed. What else could I do?
No, Anders Carlson missing a potential game-icing field goal with 1:14 to play against Ole Miss isn’t something I’d have found funny at any other point in my Auburn football-watching life. But the Tigers had outgained the Rebels 502-to-232 at that point. They’d entered Ole Miss territory 10 times, while Ole Miss had entered Auburn territory only twice. Auburn had not given up a touchdown directly from either a special teams play or an offensive turnover; in fact, they’d only turned the ball over once. And for all of that, after Carlson’s miss, they were one Rebel drive from losing, one defensive breakdown from maybe the most disappointing loss of Gus Malzahn’s seven seasons as head coach.
So: on paper, a good-to-very good performance. On paper, a comfortable victory that offers optimism for more good home showings against the Amen Corner teams. On paper, an enjoyable viewing experience. In practice, teeth-gnashing frustration to the point of bitter laughter, because of course.
Because this is Malzahn’s Tigers tenure in one tidy 60-minute package. On paper, an Auburn program is plenty strong enough and plenty accomplished enough to keep any reasonable fan satisfied. In practice, even the reasonable fans can be excused if they’ve reached a point of frustrated exhaustion.
I hope they can be, anyway, since I reached that point in the wake of the game in Baton Rouge. As a fellow Cars-loving football-obsessed Southern Christian nerd, no Auburn coach of my lifetime has connected with me on a personal level more than Gus Malzahn. I’ve defended him on this site again and again and again, repeatedly during my SEC Country gig, on Twitter more times than I could possibly count. The determination of so, so many Auburn fans to irrationally dismiss his successes and cling to his failures has been a years-long disappointment.
But even my admiration and patience can do so much in the face of a drive chart like this:
13 possessions beginning in Auburn territory, 9 of them ending in a punt after 4 plays or fewer. 3 of them ending in LSU territory, none in a touchdown. 2 of them lasting longer than 5 plays, one of those ending in a punt from Auburn’s half of the field. All while an Auburn defense holds the same offense that shredded Alabama for 46 points in Bryant-Denny to 23 on its own field.
On paper, losing by 3 on the road at an all-but-certain playoff team is a-OK. In practice, I’m so tired of trying to talk myself into that paper that when Carlson’s missed field goal balls it up and throws it in the trash yet again, there’s nothing left to do but laugh.
In a piece now lost to SEC Country’s demise and the Internet ether, I argued before the 2017 Auburn-Georgia meeting that Malzahn was about to coach the biggest game of his Tigers career. 2013 was four years in the rearview, and despite some impressive performances in the interim, after blowing shoulda-coulda-woulda wins at UGA in 2016 and LSU in 2017, Gus needed to prove that he could still win a game that mattered — like, mattered-mattered — to Auburn fans. He whipped the Dawg crap out of Georgia, then destroyed Alabama for good measure. The evidence at the time seemed plain: give Gus both a competent quarterback and a competent defense, and his ceiling was still as high as it seemed in 2013.
The evidence 1.75 seasons later seems far murkier. Gus enjoyed both a competent quarterback and a far-more-than-competent defense last season, and it didn’t matter. Whether Bo Nix qualifies as competent or not might rest in the eye of the beholder, but surely we can agree he’s not Jeremy Johnson or 2015 Sean White, and at Florida and LSU that didn’t matter either.
So here we are, in November 2019, asking again if a Gus Malzahn team can win the games Auburn fans need him to win. It might not be fair to ask, given that his current Tigers have already beaten a potential Pac-12 champion-slash-playoff contender on a neutral field, are one of the 10 best teams in the country according to the best power ranking systems we have, and (Ole Miss flukishness aside) have continued to dispatch lesser SEC foes with aplomb. What more can you logically want? I ask myself.
The answer is that I want to feel giddy after an Auburn football victory again. I want to feel delighted. I want to wake up on Sunday morning still grinning about what happened the previous day. I want to sit back, exhale, and feel the buzzing in my bones I only get after Auburn has done something wondrous, something momentous. That hasn’t happened since 2017, and that Amen Corner remains the only time it’s happened since Tre Mason ran over Missouri.
That might be my problem. Perhaps the Oregon win — and Washington win before it — should have qualified. Perhaps beating LSU in 2014 or 2016 should have. Perhaps torching Bret “Bert” Bielema’s 2016 Arkansas or this year’s Mississippi State to flecks of campfire ash should have. But those teams aren’t good enough to provoke the emotional reaction I want. The LSU teams Gus defeated weren’t believed to be that great at the time, either. And as thrilling, reassuring, and resume-building as the victories over the Huskies and Ducks have been, there’s only so much weight a season-opener against a Pac-12 opponent can carry.
“Gus can’t beat good teams” is malarkey. “Gus’s record against Teams X, Y and Alabama is bad” is malarkey unless you’re also noting that his record against Alabama is better than anyone else’s in the SEC. Not acknowledging that Gus’s teams don’t lay season-wrecking Tuberville-style eggs*, don’t quit on him, don’t generate ugly off-field headlines, and do enjoy themselves enough that no less of a player than Derrick damn Brown would return for a senior season: definitely malarkey.
But it’s not malarkey to point out that Gus has gone a combined 4-9 against LSU and Georgia when many of those LSU and Georgia teams were Very Much Not All That Great and many of those games were Very Much Winnable. It’s not malarkey to say that going forward, those games likely won’t be any more winnable, either. It’s not malarkey to believe that if Gus can’t beat Georgia tomorrow or Alabama in a couple weeks, he’ll have put together one unambiguously good season in his last six.
After 2017, I’d have told you that yes, Gus remains the coach who gave us the CoxCat and the 2016 loss in Athens and a half-dozen other defeats whose pain and frustration go well beyond a notch on the bad side of the win-loss column. But I’d have also told you that as long as he could deploy a non-Jeremy Johnson quarterback, he’d repay that frustration with electric, cathartic victory.
In 2019, the hair-pulling defeats are still here. As of yet, the soul-restoring victories are not. If Gus can’t rebalance that equation over the next month, it will only be fair to ask when/if he can.
So roughly 24 hours from the Georgia game kicking off, it feels like we’re on a big outdoor train platform, Gus and myself. There’s long whistles in the distance, plumes of smoke. The trains are coming into the station.
This first one, its destination is one Amen Corner win or a couple of dignified, non-infuriating losses, followed by Gus’s unveiling as the new head coach at Arkansas. Who could blame him if he boards? His offensive line next season is one bad roll of the JUCO dice from disaster. No defense, not even this one, can lose the likes of Brown and Marlon Davidson without noticing. Nix can only improve so much. Rather than wait a year to get the boot, why not just go home while you can?
A second train huffs and puffs its way alongside the platform. I like it less. It will take Gus to a toothless repeat of the LSU game against the Dawgs, some unfortunate unfiltered comments from veteran defensive players afterward, and a decisive, demoralized defeat against Alabama. Auburn’s incensed boosters go through their couch cushions and pay the buyout.
The third train pulling into the station is my favorite. Passengers will have the pleasure of riding to a place much like 2017: a win over playoff hopeful Georgia, a win over playoff hopeful Alabama, a 10-2 record, a New Year’s Six bowl berth and good feelings all around. Those feelings will only last for so long — with next years roster and schedule, there’s a good chance this train brings us right back to this platform in two years’ time, just as 2017 didn’t keep us from it two years ago — but putting the final nail in both the Dawgs’ and Tide’s playoff coffins means no one cares (or should).
I don’t know which train Gus will board. I don’t know what happens after he does. If he does take a one-way trip away from Auburn, I don’t know if the Tigers will be able to replace him with anyone better. My hunch is that they cannot. But after the first 9 games of this season, I will not blame them if they try.
Here’s what I do know: something is about to happen. Auburn cannot wait on this platform forever, watching our rivals head off to exotic locales while it sips coffee and goes a homebody’s 8-4. Gus Malzahn has to choose his destination. I will carry his bags. I will give him a hug. I will wish him the absolute best, and mean every kind word.
But I also must ask him to decide where his program is going. I’m hoping it’s headed straight to victory over Georgia, and on to victory over Alabama. If not, we’ll deal with going other places, too. Like the last patron at the bar, like the late-night passenger who’s missed the final train, what matters is that Auburn can’t stay here.
*Well, the “get obliterated at home against Darren McFadden’s Arkansas or Andrew Zow’s Alabama” kind of egg-laying. Malzahn’s is more an exclusively “oops, our offense gained one first down in a half in a game we lost by less than a touchdown” kind of egg-laying.
Photo via @AUGoldMine